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Winning with Kindness

In a world of virtual contact, communication and anonymous cities and neighborhoods, it’s easy to lose touch with what’s really important. It’s easy to lose touch with others, and when they (or we) go through difficulties, the distance can seem insurmountable.  We may live in a global village, but at the heart of all of us is a longing for relationships, for friendships, for connecting with other humans on a deeper level than superficial social politeness.  Here’s a woman who overcame her own depression by focusing on others, and it’s amazing to see how much it has snowballed since that one act of kindness to a stranger.  Click on the photo below to watch the story unfold.

Simple Kindness

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A Postcard from Lugano

Gandria, Switzerland

Gandria, Switzerland

Just put your feet up on the edge of the glass balcony, lean back and enjoy the breathtaking view:  straight ahead is San Salvatore – the signature mountain of Lugano, Switzerland (also known as the Rio De Janeiro of Europe) – rising out of Lake Lugano.  A sunny day will see the vast body of water dotted and streaked with lazy boats, speed boats, water skiers, and the occasional swimmer who ventures far away from the shores to swim long distance.  A sunny, windy day will see the lake bloom like a field of wildflowers with sails unfurled.  If you look straight down from the balcony, you’ll see six stories of uninterrupted view and a private swimming pool shimmering Caribbean blue in the garden below – all yours whenever you feel the urge.  Sitting there gently beckons you to breathe deep, slow down, forget time, and be as lazy as you want.  Being is the thing here, not doing, unless that doing brings pleasure.

Overhead, hawks circle, coming so close to the balcony that you can watch them turn their heads to look you in the eye.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see them swoop at the lake and come up with fish, but more commonly you’ll simply see the results dangling from their talons as they fly nestward.  Birds of all shapes and sizes are there for the viewing:  Ducks that fly past squawking as they flap furiously determined to reach their destination, always in a hurry; swans that pass each morning toward the town, and each evening toward their roost; silver-backed crows that fight for the highest treetop, chasing each other from tree to fence to roof to tree to lamppost to tree; sparrows that have learned the advantages of sharing their domain with humans; seagulls that pester hawks for their fish, pester each other for their prizes, and pester simply because they enjoy pestering.

To the right in the distance is the eponymous town, the shoreline rimmed by a walkway, boating and ferry docks, a giant fountain spraying five stories straight up – when the wind doesn’t use it to spray onlookers – and swans, coots and ducks competing with sparrows, pigeons and silver-backed crows for the breadcrumbs of passersby.  Every little corner café and ristorante has a place in the sun, with tables and chairs moved out onto the sidewalk, the giant umbrellas providing welcomed shade.  Gelaterie dot the shoreline, offering relief from the summer heat with generous portions of creamy Italian ice cream.

Gandria, as seen from the lake

Gandria, as seen from the lake

This first evening, let’s head down to Gandria:  A small, steep town tucked around the lakeshore hidden from Lugano, it’s accessible only to those who can walk.  There is one parking lot high above the town, but I prefer the walk high above the lakeshore.  For the first few minutes, we walk past luxury mansions, usually veiled in the silence of loneliness as the occupants are rarely in residence.  We pass a parking area and enter a narrow stone pathway that takes us past the back door of a few stucco homes, eventually giving way to steep cliffs to our left and a steep drop to the lake below on our right.  The forest grows thick here despite the rocky cliff, but if we take this walk early enough in the evening, we’ll see countless lizards sunning themselves along the stone path or cliff face; we may even glimpse a sunning snake, though they are usually quick to disappear into the underbrush.  We come at last to the village of Gandria, a labyrinth of stone houses and arched passageways, where swallows can be found nesting, and a postcard in the making at every turn with a picture perfect atmosphere.  The restaurant we choose engulfs the stone path, with the building on one side and the covered terrace on the edge of the lake (or out over the lake) on the other.  We order our meal (Italian, of course), complete with a bottle of local wine, and watch the shadows of the mountain grow steeper, swallowing the glittering lake as it climbs the forested Italian mountains across the invisible, watery border between the two countries.

Happily satisfied with a good meal and a good year, we begin the walk home.  By now, the dense forest is darker still, and conceals a deep ravine in the rising cliffs; at dusk, out of that ravine dart tiny bats by the hundreds.  Contrasted against the sky, we watch them deftly echolocate their meal of insects that have thrived on the lakeshore all day and have risen to soak up the last rays of the setting sun.  If you hear well, you’ll be able to hear their small shrieks as they swoop past – unaware that humans are there except as obstacles to be avoided in their flight path.

At last, we return home.  The view from the glass balcony has now changed: The lake is a blanket of darkness surrounded by the glittering lights of the towns splashed along the winding coast.  Sometimes a bright light suddenly flashes across the lake, where a car has turned directly toward us briefly on the winding roads and streets, but it is only the size of a firefly at this distance.  The peace that settles over the lake calms any thoughts of home, responsibilities, appointments, work and schedule.  Sitting in the dark and watching the stars come out as dusk fades to a black curtain, we whisper as our tangled thoughts unravel, our minds drawn to the deeper things of life than mere living.

Another place I’d take you is to the top of our mountain, Monte Brè, to the village of Brè Paese.  It seems to be a magnet for artistic abdicators of the outside world, with every corner, door, window frame, stair, archway, path, woodpile and every other possible canvas artistically arranged, painted, sculptured, framed and ready to grace a postcard.  My favourite and eponymous restaurant has a garden that reflects the philosophy of the town, being a dessert for the eyes and soul.  There is a large chess board in the garden with potted plants as the pieces; a wooden bench made of barked branches winds its way around one of the large shade trees, and a swinging bench ready to receive visitors at a moment’s notice sways in the warm breeze beneath another tree.  Our table is shaded by a kiwi fruit vine laden with fruit, winding its way up the trellis and taking its sweet time to reach a nearby balcony.  Sparrows flit between the terrace tables in search of morsels and are friendly and bold enough to even land on our table occasionally.

As night falls in Lugano, the city sparkles to rival the stars.  On a clear moonless night, the mountains surrounding the lake are etched black against the sky, contrasted by the city lights reflecting along the shore.  Some of the brighter stars even cast their reflections onto the water below.  A swan drifts past, asleep with its beak nuzzled under a wing, not caring where the gentle currents carry it by morning.

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All About Perspective

So much is exhibited to the eye that nothing is left to the imagination.  It sometimes seems almost possible that the modern world might be choked by its own riches, and human faculty dwindle away amid the million inventions that have been introduced to render its exercise unnecessary.  The articles in the quarterlies extend to thirty or more pages, but thirty pages is now too much. So we witness a further condensing process and, we have the fortnightly and the Contemporary which reduce thirty pages to fifteen pages so that you may read a larger number of articles in a shorter time and in a shorter form.  As if this last condensing process were not enough the condensed articles of these periodicals are further condensed by the daily papers, which will give you a summary of the summary of all that has been written about everything.  Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works.  Ephemeral literature is driving out the great classics of the present and the past… hurried reading can never be good reading.” – G.J. Goschen, First Annual Address to the Students, Toynbee Hall, London, 1894

1894.  We tend to think of such times as “the good old days,” when life was slow and time was taken to read, contemplate, and discuss topics at great length.  Compared to now of course, they did; but the time in which we live now will look slow to future generations.  We tend to think that women today tend to be more scantily dressed than 50 years ago, and it’s true; but 100 years ago they thought exactly the same thing of their own time.

Future generations will think it quaint that we had things called “CDs” or “DVDs” (that looked exactly the same but the playing devices were incompatible with one another!) that were physical discs you actually have to put into a machine to hear music or watch a film; or telephones that actually needed electricity, or computers that needed an internet cable, or batteries that needed changing.  Our miniscule cell phones will look as bulky and clumsy to them as ‘80s films’ cell phones do to us now.  Magazine ads from the late ‘60s were more wordy than some full-length newspaper articles today.  Ads today don’t even use words – they have to grab you with an image because you’ve just sped past in your car, on your bike, or in a tram or bus or train.

First passenger railway 1830, Liverpool & Manchester Railway.  Source - Wikipedia

First passenger railway 1830, Liverpool & Manchester Railway

Literature is changing too.  When was the last time you read a tome?  Do you like to enjoy slow reading, like fine cuisine, or do you prefer to read a book in a weekend, and if it will take much longer you’re not as interested?

“With the advent of cheap newspapers and superior means of locomotion… the dreamy quiet old days are over… for men now live and think and work at express speed.  They have their Mercury or Post laid on their breakfast table in the early morning, and if they are too hurried to snatch from it the news during that meal, they carry it off, to be sulkily read as they travel… leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them… the hurry and bustle of modern life… lacks the quiet and repose of the period when our forefathers, they day’s work done, took their ease…” – William Smith, Morley:  Ancient and Modern, 1886

It’s all about perspective.  So the next time you get impatient, stop and think about those past generations who felt intimidated by the speed of a steam locomotive, and instead be grateful you’re stuck in traffic.

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Regarding Netiquette

netiquetteThe internet is the collective human expression of Self, in all its facets:  You can find ANYTHING on here, literally.  I for one am very grateful; historical, scientific, archaeological, medical, and general research available online enables writers such as myself to stand on the shoulders of generations gone before and view the wider world from that enriched perspective.   You can also find anything for sale or free, an endless knowledge base, or entertainment, or simply a trivial waste of time, available to the entire wireless planet 24/7.  It’s a place to express opinions (informed or not), ideas (thought-through or not), philosophies (ditto), creations from songs to videos, crafts, discoveries and more.  Wonders to behold, as well as just plain wondering what the heck someone was thinking when they uploaded that.

But with the good come the bad.  I’ve gotten spam sidelined; it’s obviously spam when the text is something like, “I think you people just need to lighten up.  The writer of this article is just trying to…  (blah, blah, blah)”; there are no comments on that particular article yet, which tells me the spam’s originator is just out to stir up dissention if it happens to land on a live and already-active blog.  Why?  Are people so directionless in their lives that they have nothing better to do than stir up trouble?  Apparently.

The anonymity of the internet often brings out the worst side of people; they seem to think that, because they don’t know the person they are responding / reacting to and will probably never meet, that somehow gives them the license to be rude, belligerent, aggressive, offensive, and sloppy with everything from spelling to sentence structure.  Whatever happened to Netiquette?  Remember that quaint word (I was about to say old, but wait – internet has only been on the scene since 1993) that was an updated version of its predecessor, etiquette?  The definition (according to Wikipedia) of netiquette is, “Conduct while online that is appropriate and courteous to other Internet users.”  Ironically, the word is exactly as old as the internet itself; the need was quickly seen of reminding people to be courteous within such an anonymous setting.  In that most famous of books, the Bible, one guideline is found in Colossians 4:6:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”  That’s what’s missing in a lot of the communication online:  Graciousness.  Salt is mentioned because it is a preservative, and something that adds flavour.  Graciousness not only preserves your own dignity, but guards the dignity of the person being responded to, and those that will end up reading it.  The danger in unguarded remarks is that they will bite back; it’s all too easy to wear blinders, thinking everyone will agree with our viewpoint while forgetting that we live on a planet of diversity.  Rudeness isolates; graciousness invites.  It’s the old adage about honey drawing more bees than vinegar.

There seem to be a lot of people out there who have either never learned, or have forgotten the basic rules of Netiquette.  On one hand it’s easiest and most comfortable to say that it’s not our place to educate them; after all, they’re strangers, and to each his own, right?  I say wrong:  Why do I write, if not to communicate what’s important to me?  Why do I interact with others online if not to learn something new, or be encouraged by a great story or news item or event in the life of a friend on Facebook?  And if I interact, that means addressing issues, comfortable or not.  If someone is rude, the challenge is to point it out with graciousness, not reacting to fire with fire, but with water – putting out the brush fires that have potential to do damage… taking the wind out of their sails in a gentle way.  And try to use the sandwich technique:  A compliment first, the meat of the matter (graciously put, the correction, or rebuke, or however you want to label it), and then ending on another positive note.  If they continue a barrage of crudeness, there’s always that “delete” or “block” possibility.  Peer pressure is the most effective way of making changes, for good and bad.  Let’s become peers for good in this vast cyberworld, one step at a time.   And the next time you’re tempted to fight fire with fire, remember the salt of Grace.

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Thoughts on Writing from a Reader’s Perspective

Card - InsomniaFor me, reading a book is about escaping to a new world, diving into that world through the medium of the senses that are stimulated by well-chosen words, precision instruments that play a symphony of emotions, smells, sights, sounds, touches, tastes, balance and harmony.  I’ve never really appreciated books that are written with gratuitous scenes of violence or sex; sometimes it seems to me (as a reader) that writers throw in scenes willy-nilly to spice things up or to patch over the fact that they haven’t researched and developed their characters thoroughly, or because they run out of plot ideas and just spin their wheels.  Such scenes grate against my senses just as much as random punctuation or bad spelling does.  If such elements are not organic, logical, and a natural development of the plot, they do not belong there.  Period.  It’s an insult to my intelligence and a brazen demand on my “believability credits” that is frankly not the author’s to demand… those credits are something that I as a reader give gladly to a good writer, but a writer has to earn them, and has no right to demand that I suspend disbelief to dive into their story when they haven’t bothered to make it believable.  The writer’s job is to earn those credits through good writing, good writing, and good writing, i.e. plot, character development, grammar, syntax, orthography, and structure.

Don’t misunderstand me:  There are times when the darker scenes are organic; they are necessary to portray the character, or are a natural outflow of the character’s flaws or decision process, or lack of positive input earlier on in life.  Sexual scenes can be sexy without being vulgar, sensual without being slutty.  Sometimes I read books that deal with such issues, but more as a writer than a reader, to see how they are structured.  I read part of a book recently (I gave up quite early, which not a good sign for the writer) where the author had seemingly tried to cram as many vulgar terms as they could into one chapter, or one page, or one dialogue.  It got so ridiculous that I started reading as an editor, slicing out entire passages to improve the script.  As far as I’m concerned, there’s not really a point in publishing something that will likely offend half your demographic sector away from buying a second book.

Give me something to read that’s intelligent, entertaining, witty, smart, deep, and that I can come away from the experience wanting more – not just another book with those characters, but that I come away having learned something about myself or the world around me, having been positively changed, encouraged, enlightened or satisfied.

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